There’ve been enough books about teenagers in boarding schools at this point for the subject to get its own genre label. By putting the natural tensions of high school into an even more claustrophobic environment, writers can generate endless possibilities—say, the examination of the relationship between two roommates, one athletic, one more intellectually inclined. Or a look at how young people try to be adults when confronted with an excess of rules, but a lack of direct influence. Colin McAdam’s latest novel, Fall, does its fair best to tackle both subjects, with an additional look at the difference between romance and obsession. His story starts strong but loses its way at the midpoint, falling back on clichés and technique to cover for a lack of imagination.
Noel and Julius make an odd pair. Both are sons of ambassadors, and both are seniors at a prestigious Canadian boarding school, but while Julius is popular, easygoing, and not much prone to introspection, Noel is an outcast, due partly to a lazy eye, but mostly to his own detached, off-putting manner. The two are thrown into close contact when they’re made to share a room in their last year of school. The living arrangement gives Julius a chance to make friends, and it gives Noel a chance to get closer to the one thing he and Julius have in common: Fall, Julius’ girlfriend and the object of Noel’s longtime obsession. Things start off well, with Noel running notes between the two after a disciplinary problem sidelines Julius, but tensions arise when Noel tries to make certain assumptions a reality.
Fall is written in first-person, generally switching between its two leads; Noel’s narration is measured and often icily clinical, while Julius’ comes in short, excitable bursts. McAdam’s mastery of both voices is impressive, but while Noel’s commentary, and the distance between that commentary and actual events, is intriguing, Julius’s babble eventually loses its novelty. His good-natured enthusiasm is heartbreaking, but once the point is made, it loses its import on repetition. McAdam makes the most out of the potential for disaster that lurks behind the book’s opening half, but once things take a turn for the worst, the narrative loses a lot of steam. It’s a familiar tale, distinctly told, but without much reason for the re-telling.